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Thread: What justified the first instance of public property becoming private?

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    Contributor PyramidHead's Avatar
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    What justified the first instance of public property becoming private?

    We're all familiar with the rationale behind private property rights and mutually agreeable exchanges thereof. But the American libertarian idea that these elements are all that need to be enforced to ensure a free and just society treats them as having existed eternally.

    Private ownership of land and resources is relatively new for our civilization, however. Before things like rivers, quarries, forests, and plains were bought and sold as commodities, what justified the initial act of someone asserting ownership over them? Doesn't all subsequent ownership, regardless of the premises of its exchange, depend on whether this first acquisition was itself fair and just?

    I would argue that it does. To use a contemporary example of a publicly owned resource: imagine that a wealthy family moves into your state and declares themselves owners of the water supply. To acquire water for drinking, cleaning, and cooking purposes you now have to buy it directly from them. However, they are otherwise honorable businesspeople, and conduct their transactions of the water according to prices that are mutually agreed upon by all parties--notwithstanding the fact that you need water to survive and they can thus charge pretty much whatever they like. It's clear to me that any fairness in the family's sale of the water to its citizens, who originally distributed the cost throughout the population via taxation, is insufficient to make their ownership of the water itself fair, and that negates whatever advantage could have been claimed by pointing out the voluntary nature of the transaction.

    The point is that the absence of coercion at the point of exchange between commodities only establishes the fairness of the exchange, not the original state of affairs that led to the commodities being exchanged (or being commodities!). Returning to the example, mass action by the citizens to reclaim the water supply from the wealthy family who asserted its ownership would be perfectly justifiable; not theft, but the correction of a prior theft. If they used a state apparatus to accomplish this, it would be akin to state takeover of private property, albeit private property that did not exist as such until a private actor claimed it. But all private property is like this, is it not?

    The libertarian argument against state takeover is that it amounts to a violation of private property rights. Yet, the justification behind private property being classified as private property is never followed to its original source, which could not have been a mutually voluntary exchange since there was no original private owner to exchange anything with. At some point, every inch of land and water was nobody's property. Force, often brutal force, was employed in the sequestration of resources for private use as a matter of logical necessity.

    In the same way that the mutually agreeable trade of slaves was rendered unacceptable on the grounds that humans were simply not the type of thing that should be traded, no matter how legitimate the transaction, the argument could be made that no justification for private ownership of natural resources has ever existed or could ever exist, and is certainly not to be found by examining the purchase and sale of these commodities long after they were violently enclosed by those who had no right to do so.

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    There must be a means of appropriating property because many goods have exclusive benefits.

    We can't both eat the same apple.

    If I am to eat an apple, I must have the means to appropriate an apple.

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    I'd imagine that the first instance of it was some rich guy bribing some government officials to sell it to him. The second, third and all consecutive instances were probably quite similar.

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    Quote Originally Posted by dismal View Post
    There must be a means of appropriating property because many goods have exclusive benefits.

    We can't both eat the same apple.

    If I am to eat an apple, I must have the means to appropriate an apple.
    But there are many apples, dismal. If you want one, just pick one. What gives you the right to not just pick an apple, but to close off a 10 square-mile radius around the trees and say 'nobody gets these apples unless they pay me, or my mercenary force will beat them up with sticks'? That's what we're talking about here, not individual items of personal property or consumption.

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    Quote Originally Posted by PyramidHead View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by dismal View Post
    There must be a means of appropriating property because many goods have exclusive benefits.

    We can't both eat the same apple.

    If I am to eat an apple, I must have the means to appropriate an apple.
    But there are many apples, dismal. If you want one, just pick one. What gives you the right to not just pick an apple, but to close off a 10 square-mile radius around the trees and say 'nobody gets these apples unless they pay me, or my mercenary force will beat them up with sticks'? That's what we're talking about here, not individual items of personal property or consumption.
    This is akin to asking why we have laws. In this case, these particular laws make society far better off.

    Imagine how successful our planet would be if we had 7 billion people fighting for whatever food sprang up naturally.

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    Contributor PyramidHead's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by dismal View Post
    This is akin to asking why we have laws. In this case, these particular laws make society far better off.
    My question was very specific, and you still haven't answered it.

    Imagine how successful our planet would be if we had 7 billion people fighting for whatever food sprang up naturally.
    That sounds an awful lot like what you're implicitly advocating, provided that whoever happens to win each fight becomes the owner of the food and the beneficiary of laws that preserve their ownership.

    But let's not kid ourselves.

    The topic is not how to justify people taking food that they intend to consume. Private ownership of resources is not for consumption, because no owner of a plot of land could ever hope to consume all the food it yields. He specifically intends to prevent others from consuming any of the food, not because he needs it to live, but because he can leverage the need of others for his own benefit. Prior to whatever voluntary exchange might transfer his ownership to someone else in whole or in part, what gives him the right to take advantage of people like that?

    The answer: he has the power to do so. He's got the guys with sticks. The entire foundation of the libertarian non-aggression principle is its exact antithesis, might makes right, to the victor go the spoils. Do you have an alternative explanation?

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    Quote Originally Posted by PyramidHead View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by dismal View Post
    This is akin to asking why we have laws. In this case, these particular laws make society far better off.
    My question was very specific, and you still haven't answered it.

    Imagine how successful our planet would be if we had 7 billion people fighting for whatever food sprang up naturally.
    That sounds an awful lot like what you're implicitly advocating, provided that whoever happens to win each fight becomes the owner of the food and the beneficiary of laws that preserve their ownership.

    But let's not kid ourselves.

    The topic is not how to justify people taking food that they intend to consume. Private ownership of resources is not for consumption, because no owner of a plot of land could ever hope to consume all the food it yields. He specifically intends to prevent others from consuming any of the food, not because he needs it to live, but because he can leverage the need of others for his own benefit. Prior to whatever voluntary exchange might transfer his ownership to someone else in whole or in part, what gives him the right to take advantage of people like that?

    The answer: he has the power to do so. He's got the guys with sticks. The entire foundation of the libertarian non-aggression principle is its exact antithesis, might makes right, to the victor go the spoils. Do you have an alternative explanation?
    Hmm, I thought I did answer the question. From a rule utilitarian perspective the reason we have laws protecting private property is they make things better.

    It wasn't so long ago that a large portion of human effort went into acquiring basic sustenance. Even at the founding of the USA more than 80% of Americans were employed in agriculture, and there was even some amount of scale farming then. Now it's 2%.

    How are you going to have 2% of the people feed everyone without private property?

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    This is actually a topic that has garnered much though over the years.

    Primitive accumulation of capital

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    PH, it is an interesting philosophical question, but how in the heck do you get that amount of toothpaste back in the tube? There aren't a CTRL and Z button on a keyboard large enough to undo private property.

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    Quote Originally Posted by dismal View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by PyramidHead View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by dismal View Post
    There must be a means of appropriating property because many goods have exclusive benefits.

    We can't both eat the same apple.

    If I am to eat an apple, I must have the means to appropriate an apple.
    But there are many apples, dismal. If you want one, just pick one. What gives you the right to not just pick an apple, but to close off a 10 square-mile radius around the trees and say 'nobody gets these apples unless they pay me, or my mercenary force will beat them up with sticks'? That's what we're talking about here, not individual items of personal property or consumption.
    This is akin to asking why we have laws. In this case, these particular laws make society far better off.

    Imagine how successful our planet would be if we had 7 billion people fighting for whatever food sprang up naturally.
    You could also plant and maintain a lot of apple trees that people could pick from at will.

    With the will. If the government was trying to think of ways to help everyone instead of just the rich.

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